What is the proper arena for dispute?
If you are a Food Network groupie, then you are familiar with the show “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” In the territory of a chef’s kitchen, he cooks his own version of that chef’s famous dish and customers and food critics vote on the outcome. The winner varies.
In 1263, Nachmanides (Ramban) was chosen to represent the Jews in the Barcelona dispute, held in the presence of the king, the bishop of Barcelona and a large audience in order to debate Pau Cristia, a Jew who converted to Christianity. The goal was to try and convert the Jews to Christianity. The debate took place in five sessions in the Grand Royal Palace. Ramban won the dispute but was the object of such harassment, and he moved to Palestine.
In this week’s Torah portion, when Korach challenges the leadership structure, Moses directs Korach and his company to take their fire pans, lay incense on them and take them to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, as did Moses and Aaron. As it turns out, there was never a contest of incense, but the ground was laid for the competition of incense-burning leaders.
Centuries later, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18) to a dual of the burnt offerings, even giving them the better odds (as if that mattered) since he soaked his wood in water.
When we enter a debate “for the sake of heaven,” a debate of merit and respect, of content and meaningful outcome, of not tearing apart, but building, the venue is important. When we debate how to raise our children, it is not productive if one spouse just walks in from an exhausting day of work outside the home and the other walks over from a day with the children. When we have a troubling ethical question, standing at the oneg table doesn’t give proper recognition to the matter at hand. When we have an issue with an individual at work, throwing down the gauntlet at a staff meeting most likely will be counterproductive.
Think of a recent dispute you had. What was the tone? The outcome? Would a change in arena have given them better chances of being positive?
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)